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The artist who uses his body to taunt the Kremlin

Body Politics

Protest isn’t safe in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but one artist is putting himself on the line. Politics is his subject; his body is his medium. Noah Sneider presents Petr Pavlensky

Protest isn’t safe in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but one artist is putting himself on the line. Politics is his subject; his body is his medium. Noah Sneider presents Petr Pavlensky

Noah Sneider | June/July 2016

Just before one in the morning on November 9th 2015, Petr Pavlensky sauntered up to a café in central Moscow. It was a dull grey night, the windless, chilly whimper of a city in the last throes of fall. Pavlensky, a gaunt man with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes, wore black jeans, a black coat, black sneakers and a black beanie with ear flaps. He was carrying an old silver gas canister.

At the café he picked up two photojournalists and, with an associate trailing clandestinely, made his way down the quiet streets towards Lubyanka, the infamous headquarters of Russia’s KGB, and its successor agency, the FSB (Federal Security Service). The neighbourhood near Lubyanka is one of Moscow’s prettiest, lined with charming pre-revolutionary façades. Lubyanka itself is a baroque layer cake of yellow brick, and though there are no plaques indicating what the building houses, every Russian knows.

Pavlensky emerged from an underpass next to Lubyanka and, sensing an opening, bolted for the main entrance. “He was so focused”, his associate said, “that he didn’t even check to see if the journalists had followed.” He approached the heavy wooden doors, doused them with petrol, and set them alight. Then he stood stoically in front of the burning gates and waited. “He was completely calm,” said Nigina Beroeva, one of the photographers. “He had that stone face of his, the same one he has during every action.”

With Lubyanka’s doors ablaze, it took 17 seconds for a portly police officer in a reflective neon coat to reach Pavlensky. Soon several stunned others arrived, wrestled him to the ground, and corralled him and the photographers into a police van. “My God,” Beroeva heard one of the officers say. “There’s so many of these crazies!”

The next morning, while Pavlensky was still in custody, a grainy video of the scene appeared online, seemingly shot by a passer-by, with the fringe of a sleeve visible along the right edge of the frame. Below the video, entitled “Threat”, Pavlensky explained: “The burning doors of Lubyanka are society’s slap in the face of a terrorist threat. The FSB operates by means of continuous terror to maintain control over 146m people. Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of disparate bodies.”

Since emerging in the public eye in 2012, Pavlensky has produced a string of profound, if sensationalist, performances. Leading up to “Threat”, he sewed his mouth shut outside St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral to protest against the jailing of the punk protest group Pussy Riot (“Stitch”); rolled naked in barbed wire outside the St Petersburg legislature as a critique of Russia’s oppressive legal system (“Carcass”); sat naked on Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones as a metaphor for the “apathy, political indifference and fatalism” of modern Russian society (“Fixation”); re-enacted Ukraine’s Maidan protests in the heart of St Petersburg (“Freedom”); and climbed naked (of course) onto the wall of Moscow’s notorious Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry, where he chopped off his right earlobe with a kitchen knife (“Separation”).

Pavlensky practises actionism, an art form with a rich history in Russia. He calls his particular brand of actionism “political art” (not to be confused with art about politics). He paints with the mechanisms of power and uses his own body as a canvas. He believes in the emancipatory potential of his works. As a means of revolution, it is almost certainly a futile endeavour; but as art, there is no clearer image of Russia in 2016.

ABOVE “Threat” Burning the Lubyanka doors
MAIN IMAGE “Stitch” Action not words

Petya Pavlensky grew up in a tan ten-storey Soviet apartment block near the shipyards on the north-western edge of St Petersburg, where the air tastes of the sea. His father was a geologist, his mother a nurse. Their building overlooked a quiet courtyard filled with birch trees.

Childhood was a cradle of normality, “as typical as the high-rise in which I lived,” Pavlensky wrote to me from prison in response to questions I sent him earlier this year. He remembers only one unordinary incident: as a young boy, he set a pile of cardboard on fire in the stairwell. No one was harmed, but a policeman came for a chat. Upon seeing the officer, Petya hid under a table. Now when he thinks of that episode, he wonders: “Who taught a young child that the police MUST BE FEARED?”

When Petya was seven, the Soviet Union collapsed. “The news was playing on a black-and-white television,” he recalled. “They said something about a putsch and a coup. I didn’t sense any attention from the adults. Then there were coloured coupons for food.” His father took on an extra job hawking CDs, which pleased Petya, who suddenly had access to nearly any album he wanted.

As a teenager, Petya was a punk. In the seventh grade, he was kicked out of school for making pornographic drawings of his classmates. It was his first artistic scandal. Later in high school, he and his friends skipped classes to get drunk, go to exhibitions or watch art-house films. They did not care for politics; they got high and raved. Petya would often sketch their late-night adventures. “He could draw – even without formal study, his proportions always turned out,” said Nikita Medvedev, one of Pavlensky’s closest childhood friends. “We told him, Petya, go, do it, you’re good at it.” Petya, by his own admission, thought little about his future.

Tragedy struck the Pavlenskys in 2005. Petya’s father, only 49, died, choking on a piece of meat in front of the refrigerator. For Petya, his parents had became an example of how not to live. He watched his father give in to a drunken search for comfort, a degradation of the self. In his mother, he saw a person who worshipped the television, who lived according to the standards set out by propaganda, ever fearful of standing out from the crowd. “The main marker of his identity is the rejection of his parents’ lifestyle,” said Darya Khrenova, a documentary filmmaker who has been recording Pavlensky since early 2015.

Pavlensky dedicated himself to art. He began attending a classical academy, where he studied monumental painting. But he soon became disenchanted, seeing it as a factory that produced decorations for the regime. He started going to lectures at ProArte, a school with a more contemporary bent, but came to notice similar mechanisms at work: in place of the Russian state were European galleries and foundations exerting control through a system of grants and residencies. “I saw these centres destroy the artistic potential in hundreds of people, and replace it with the consciousness of a prostitute, seeking only to find a rich customer and service his every desire,” he said.

Around this time, he met Oksana Shalygina, who would become his partner in art and life. She is his collaborator, lover and intellectual sparring partner. “We’ve always worked as a team,” she told me. “He was always the source of ideas, and I come in at the next phase and begin organising how to realise it all.” Together they produce a journal called Political Propaganda, a platform for discussion of political art. The journal’s website serves as a crib sheet of their influences: Gramsci, Foucault, Debord, Tolstoy, Santiago Sierra, Tania Bruguera.

The couple lives in a flat near the Griboyedov canal in St Petersburg with their two young daughters, Alisa and Lilya, aged 8 and 5. Neither of the girls attends school; their home education includes kick-boxing, painting, chess and the inter­pretation of poetry (Mayakovsky, at the moment). The entrance to their building is a chest-high door tucked away on an alley. The flat itself is a single, small, square room. A wall used to divide the space, but when they moved in, Pavlensky tore it down, leaving an open wound along the ceiling. There is no furniture, save for a desk, a low table and four tiny chairs. The family does not use beds, sleeping instead on blankets on the floor. The only decorations are a banner announcing the flat as the Political Propaganda publishing house and children’s doodles in black ink along one wall.

Together, Pavlensky and Shalygina have honed their views on art and politics. Their tastes tend, unsurprisingly, toward the radical: Dadaists, the Russian Avant-Garde, and Viennese Actionists, among others. Yet Pavlensky also says he loves Cara­vaggio and Lucian Freud; Shalygina talks longingly of Manet’s subversive “Olympia”. When it comes to politics, they advocate anarchism. They tried at first to work within the institutional art world, but found the strictures unbearable. “Everyone was afraid of controversial topics,” Shalygina said. “Our main enemy is compromise. Either you obey or you resist.”

In early 2012, the women of Pussy Riot burst into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Behind bright balaclavas, they sang: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin”. Two of the members, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, ended up in prison; Putin said the girls “got what they asked for”. Their case became an international sensation, and a harbinger of the conservative turn Putin would take after his return to the presidency that year. “From that moment, [the regime] began to seriously address the arts, to bring all their repressive methods to bear,” said Marat Guelman, a prominent gallerist who had worked closely with the Kremlin throughout the 2000s, but left the country after coming under pressure for speaking out in support of Pussy Riot. “The same processes happened in the media, then in politics, and now in the arts.”

For Pavlensky, the persecution of Pussy Riot was a turning point: “It was a brutal attempt by the regime to climb onto the territory of art and turn it into an instrument of ideological control.” On July 23rd 2012 he staged a one-man protest in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg holding a poster that read: “The performance of Pussy Riot was a replication of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:12–13)” – the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple. He stood silently, having sewn his mouth shut with red thread.

Pavlensky’s photograph instantly ricocheted around the world. “We hit a nerve,” Shalygina said. For Tolokonnikova, watching from prison, Pavlensky’s emergence was a godsend. “By some miracle, there finally appeared a person to whom I could, with a clean conscience, while sitting in prison, pass along actionism, pass along the actionist tradition,” she told me.

Actionism first came to Moscow in the 1990s, when a small group of enfants terribles took to the streets, staging provocative performances that captured a world coming unmoored. In early 1991, just months before the Soviet collapse, Anatoly Osmolovsky gathered a group of comrades on Red Square, where they laid down and arranged their bodies to spell the word ХУЙ (COCK). The public actions were a response to the lack of institutional platforms for their ideas, Osmolovsky said. “The only thing left to us were the streets.”

Life pared down
Oksana Shalygina in the couple’s flat in St Petersburg

Several years later, Oleg Kulik made a name for himself by roaming Moscow’s streets as a dog, crawling naked, biting and barking at passers-by, an act he later repeated to great fanfare in Western galleries. For Kulik, actionism was about identity in a country where all reference points had disappeared. “What was left was only the body, which had never belonged to you before. The first actionists of the 1990s offered this body, the naked body of the naked man in the midst of a wild city,” Kulik told me. “It’s a powerful image: out of these endless myths of collectivism, these endless crowds and groups and bands and parties, emerges a person, emerges an individual with nothing and no one behind him. He’s one against all. But it’s not that he’s fighting, he is simply saying: I exist! Here I am, and I am art.”

The most controversial of the bunch, and Pavlensky’s favourite, was Alexander Brener. Throughout the 1990s, he terrorised Moscow: he screamed at the Kremlin wearing boxing gloves, challenging Boris Yeltsin to a brawl; he stood on the square across from Lubyanka, where a statue to Felix Dzerzhinsky, who set up the Soviet Union’s secret police, had once loomed, and yelled: “I’m your new commercial director!”; he masturbated atop the diving board of Moscow’s main swimming pool just before it was paved over to make room for the church where Pussy Riot would later perform. But by the end of the decade, the movement petered out. “It demands enormous internal moral resources,” Osmolovsky said, speculating that most actionists cannot practise for more than seven years. He himself abandoned actionism when faced with the threat of prison. Brener left Russia. Kulik retreated into sculpture.

Amid the oil boom of the mid-2000s, a second wave of Russian actionists gathered force, mainly around the Moscow-based “Bombili” group and the St Petersburg-based “Voina”, from which Pussy Riot emerged. Unlike the Moscow actionists of the 1990s, they operated as collectives, and made it their mission not to get caught. Voina became notorious for drawing a massive penis on a drawbridge next to the FSB building in St Petersburg. When the bridge rose, the penis went erect. These earlier actionists were impish and carnivalesque; they reflected an era when the state was less fearsome.

Pavlensky’s work, by contrast, feeds off the more repressive tendencies of Putin’s third term. As the space for expression shrinks, he only gets stronger. At its core, Pavlensky’s art is an attempt to assert the existence of the individual, to prove that it is possible to be a subject in a state that strives to make everything and everyone – living and dead, past and present – its objects. To do so, he reclaims the body as the site of the self. “He demonstrates a person who is willing to inflict upon himself injuries more devious, more painful than others could inflict upon him,” said Guelman. “As such, he demonstrates the weakness of the system: your power ends where my body begins, because you can never do more to me than I have done to myself.”

His pieces, at their best, contain a matrix of cultural, historical and political references, the product of a wild and erudite mind. “Fixation”, for example, at once nods to the roots of Moscow actionism and appropriates the language of Russian labour camps, where prisoners would nail their genitals to benches in protest. “Segregation” is a play on Van Gogh. Pavlensky’s description of “Threat” – “society’s slap in the face of a terrorist threat” – is a clear echo of the landmark 1912 Cubo-Futurist manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”, in which a group of radical Russian poets famously called for Pushkin to be thrown “off the steamship of Modernity”.

Pavlensky specialises in creating situations that draw the authorities into his actions, turning them into the puppets in his theatre of the absurd. His opening gesture is only the first step. Everything that follows – the arrests, the hearings, the media coverage – is an integral part of the work itself. The unpredictability of that development is part of what distinguishes actionism from performance art. “I have never worked with performance,” he told me. “If you imagine a line, where at one end there is opera (as a means of communication), and at the other there is a terrorist attack (as a means of communication), then in terms of the scriptedness of the gesture, performance will be closer to opera, and actionism to terrorism.”

Often, the authorities respond in ways that highlight his message: after “Threat”, they covered the scorched doors with sheets of corrugated metal – a veritable iron curtain. During “Fixation”, the officers circling Pavlensky seemed disgusted by the sight of him and unsure what to do with the nail poking through his scrotum; eventually they draped him with a white sheet, turning him into a fleeting reflection of Gandhi. The government currently has two court cases open against him, in two different cities. Yet earlier this year, as Pavlensky sat in prison awaiting trial for “Threat”, the jury of Innovation, Russia’s leading state-financed art prize, walked out after the organisers refused to consider him for the top honours.

In the mainstream Russian art world, Pavlensky is an outcast. He does not participate in exhibits, nor attend openings, nor schmooze with curators over cocktails (he no longer drinks at all). Though he has active supporters, he largely works alone. Many think that the “political” in his work overshadows the “art”.

“In Pavlensky I see two main components: the citizen, who has political views, and the artist, who has artistic views,” said Dmitry Ozerkov, director of contemporary art at St Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Museum. “Each of these domains can be analysed: for some he is an artist, for others he is a political activist.” Ozerkov argues, as many do, that Pavlensky’s art, while interesting, is too fleeting, too tied to the politics of the moment, to leave a powerful imprint on history.

The debate over the role of the artist in society, over the line between art and activism, is age-old and universal. But as Isaiah Berlin points out in his essay “Artistic Commitment: A Russian Legacy”, nowhere has the polemic had as profound an effect as in Russia. The Soviet poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko captured this in verse:

The poet in Russia is more than just a poet
In Russia, fated to be born as poets
are only those in whom the proud spirit of the citizen roams,
those who have no comfort, and no peace.
The poet in Russia is the image of his times
and a ghostly apparition of the future.

Writing in the wake of the failed Decembrist revolution of 1825, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky argued that “to take away from art the right to serve the public interest is not to elevate it but to debase it, because it means to deprive it of its most vital force – of thought – to transform it into the object of some kind of sybaritic enjoyment, the plaything of lazy idlers.” His credo, that “our time craves for convictions, it is tormented by the hunger for the truth,” was a response to Russian romantics who had embraced the idea of art for art’s sake, arguing, as Pushkin once did, that “the purpose of poetry is poetry.”

Berlin writes that Belinsky’s call was “the earliest and most poignant formulation of the disquiet and, at times, agonised self-questioning that tormented the Russian intelligentsia forever after. Henceforth, no Russian writer could feel entirely free from this moral attitude.” The doctrine of the socially conscious artist paved the way for generations of radicals and nonconformists, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose 1863 novel “What is to be Done?” inspired Lenin to revolution, and the Soviet dissidents who struggled against the world that the revolution forged.

To be a socially conscious artist in Russia is to take on the state. In Russian, the word for “power” is vlast’; yet vlast’ is also synonymous with the government, an abstraction Russians use to describe their rulers. (In Russia, Foucault can feel banal; it is no great revelation that vlast’ is everywhere.) At a time when most Russian cultural figures have either embraced Putinism or tried to escape it, Pavlensky occupies that storied position of the poet who is more than just a poet. “Pavlensky is the mind, conscience and balls of an epoch,” Tolokonnikova has said.

His work aims for liberation. “The voice of vlast’ says: ‘Listen, repeat, obey!’ The voice of art says: ‘Speak, refute, resist!’” he writes in a forthcoming manifesto, “The Bureaucratic Convulsion and the New Economy of Political Art”. He sees no sense in art for art’s sake, believing instead in art as change, as progress, as awakening. “The history of art in Russia is the history of the clash between the individual and vlast’,” he told me.

“Fixation”
A ball ache for the Kremli

The state, in turn, has made a mission of discrediting Pavlensky, presenting him as a criminal, a madman, or both. Asked about “Fixation”, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, told a reporter to “go to the Museum of Medicine and Psychiatry and ask that question there”. The week after “Threat”, Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, Dmitry Kiselyov, declared Pavlensky a “self-mutilating recidivist” on his flagship Sunday-night broadcast. Under the heading “Poor Guy”, Kiselyov attempted to link actionism with ISIS and Hitler’s Germany. “Let’s compare it with ISIS’s beheading clips: how are they not actionism?” he crowed. “They’re definitely filmed better than Pavlensky’s. Should they get a prize?”

Hoping to avoid another Pussy Riot-style scandal, the Kremlin trod carefully with Pavlensky at first, letting him off with slaps on the wrist for his early actions. But after “Freedom”, laden as it was with revolutionary symbolism, the authorities could no longer merely look askance. Pavlensky and a small team emerged on the Maliy Konyushenniy Bridge in St Petersburg, in the shadow of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, where partisans had once murdered Tsar Alexander II. They burned tyres, waved Ukrainian flags and beat on makeshift drums.

Pavel Yasman, a young investigator, was assigned to assemble the case against Pavlensky. He ordered a search of Pavlensky’s home and began interrogating the suspect. While earlier actionists tried to avoid incarceration at all costs, Pavlensky seeks out the conflict. “He understood that this would end with prison,” his friend Alexander “Adolfich” Nesterenko, a cult Ukrainian writer, told me. “It could not end any other way: all of his actions demand an escalation of the tension.”

By infiltrating the legal system, Pavlensky finds ever richer material for his art. Unbeknown to Yasman, their conversations were being recorded. Pavlensky later published them online as a three-act play, a set of dialogues about the nature of the legal system, the role of the state in Russian life, and the meaning of art. Their exchanges would have made Kafka smile:

PAVLENSKY: Malevich said, “In art, truth is important, not sincerity.”
INVESTIGATOR: Petr Andreevich, my dear, I quite enjoy talking with you. But will we be long today? It’s just, I come here every day at seven in the morning...
PAVLENSKY:  I want us to find some points of contact, I want to understand how both sides think. To recontextualise something from the symbolic field into the legal-procedural codex is a difficult task.;
INVESTIGATOR: What did you say? I didn’t understand a damn thing – just like when I studied your statement.
PAVLENSKY:  I spent a long time writing it.
INVESTIGATOR: Let’s speak in Russian.
PAVLENSKY:  In Russian: there is a symbolic field. Symbols, signs. Signifier and signified. Art works in this field. But at the same time, of course, in reality too. For us, just as for Malevich, truth should come before sincerity. That is, we should begin to look at the action, at the act of art from different sides, and then we can arrive at some kind of truth. What was the action aimed at: defiling social mores, or, instead, strengthening social ties?
INVESTIGATOR: No one is investigating anyone for any kind of action. The investigation is being carried out in relation to an undetermined group of people for the burning of tyres.
PAVLENSKY:  For fire?
INVESTIGATOR: For the burning of tyres!

Yet the more time Yasman spent with Pavlensky, the more he came to agree with the renegade artist. Pavlensky pointed out the ways vlast’ turns people into functionaries, into mere objects fulfilling their roles. “He’s absolutely right,” Yasman said. “And I hadn’t thought about it before.” When his bosses demanded that Pavlensky be sent to a psychiatric ward, Yasman balked. “Here, most people think that if someone doesn’t agree with them, it means they’re crazy,” Yasman said. “I told them that he’s a completely sane person, that he’s smarter and more erudite than all of you combined.” He quit the powerful Investigative Committee and became a defence lawyer.

Russian rulers have long sought to smear their critics by calling them crazy. In the 1820s, the philosopher Pytor Chaadaev, who penned a series of unflattering “Philosophical Letters” about Russian identity, was declared insane by Tsar Nicholas I. During the later Soviet era, the state developed a practice of punitive psychiatry. A series of writers and dissidents who dared challenge the official line, including Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Bukovsky, passed through dubious psych wards. “There are people who are fighting with communism…but those people are clearly not in a normal psychological state,” declared Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Similar proclamations have been voiced by Putin’s backers too, including the nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, who once said, “There are no more opponents of Putin’s course, and if there are, then they are mentally ill and must be sent for examinations.”

Pavlensky has undergone roughly a dozen psychiatric evaluations in connection with his actions. Yet each time, the court psychiatrists have found him varying degrees of sane (a fact that has done little to deter prosecutors from trying time and again). Pavlensky, in turn, used the state’s attempts to institutionalise him as inspiration for the action he called “Segregation”, when he climbed onto the grey cement outer wall of Serbsky, chopped off his right earlobe with a kitchen knife, and sat calmly while the blood trickled down his chest.

To be fair, Pavlensky’s actions do provoke a common first reaction: that’s nuts! “Why do people think that he’s crazy? First, because being naked [in public] means crazy. Second, because he speaks out against the regime. But also because he operates on the one thing that is sacred for these people, that is, he operates on his own body,” said Nesterenko. “They think that someone who debases his body must be crazy.” Even old acquaintances are not certain what happened to the Pavlensky they knew. “Everyone asks, what happened, did he lose his mind?” his childhood friend Medvedev said. “But he didn’t lose his mind at all; he’s just using that moment as an instrument.”

For Pavlensky’s proponents, his depravity is instead a sign of dignity. This interpretation rests in part on the ancient Russian tradition of the yurodivy, or holy fool. (St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square is named after one of the most famous of these holy fools, Vasily Blazhenny.) Holy fools feigned madness or acted with deliberate provocation in order to deliver a higher truth. The holy fool is “a righteous man who assumes a guise of irrationality for ascetic and educational purposes,” writes Sergey Ivanov, an authority on holy foolery.

Over the centuries, while similar concepts disappeared in other cultures, the yurodivy lived on, at least metaphorically, in the pages of Russian literature. “It’s connected with the aspiration for and search for the ideal that is characteristic of Russian culture,” Ivanov told me. “It’s the sense that truth exists somewhere, and that we must aspire to it, must search for that truth. It’s a sensation that’s especially powerfully expressed in Dostoevsky.”

After “Threat”, Pavlensky was sent back to Serbsky, this time for another court-ordered evaluation. Citing a citywide flu quarantine, the hospital had refused to let his lawyers see him for nearly a month. So I decided to pay a visit to the centre’s director, Zurab Kekelidze, who agreed to meet me on the premise that we would discuss the evolution of psychiatry in modern Russia.

Kekelidze, a wizened man with white hair and deep wrinkles across his forehead, has worked in psychiatric wards since the 1970s. At first Kekelidze said that legally he could not say anything at all about Pavlensky, not even whether he was being held at Serbsky; he could not talk about his impressions when he discovered Pavlensky bleeding and naked during “Segregation”, because “my function was as the keeper of the wall.”

But after more than an hour of munching on almonds and chatting in the abstract, Kekelidze finally addressed the situation with Pavlensky directly. Punitive psychiatry was not making a return, he insisted. Serbsky had worked for 25 years to restore its reputation, why would they undo that progress now? And besides, Kekelidze said, “Person X, is he a real opponent who can lead someone behind him? No. So then what are we talking about?”

“What kind of activity is it, how can he be classified? Is it moral, amoral, freedom of conscience, what?” he mused.

“It’s revolutionary activity,” he continued. “Unfortunately, it’s clear how all revolutions ended. There are many historical moments. So what is this conversation about? About morals? There are no morals in that.”

Maidan voyage
Pavlensky arrested in St Petersburg after re-enacting the Ukranian protests

In late February, with Pavlensky still stuck inside Serbsky, the Tagansky Court in central Moscow convened a hearing to extend his pre-trial arrest. The mere suggestion of his presence turned the cramped courtroom into a spectacle. Cameramen formed a wall beside the maroon cage where Pavlensky would sit. Police officers scurried about. I squeezed onto a narrow bench next to other journalists, activists and supporters gathered in Hall 211. Onto one of the benches, someone had scratched: “Do not be afraid and do not be nerbous [sic]”.

Shalygina arrived clad in black trousers, a thin black sweater, a black jacket, and black sneakers with no laces. She took a seat right next to the cage. With her hair cropped close and dyed a fresh coat of stark white, she looked the perfect foil to the judge, who emerged in black robes with shoulder-length jet-black hair and bright red lipstick, the shade of fresh blood.

“Hello, hello,” Pavlensky said as the guards walked him, handcuffed, into the courtroom. “There’s so many of you!”

The authorities had charged Pavlensky with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred” for his burning of the Lub­yanka doors. Pavlensky said he was “flattered” by the accusation (“What other feelings could one have toward such an organisation?”), but nonetheless he has demanded that the court requalify his case as terrorism, a charge that carries a potential sentence of 20 years in prison.

His request is a nod to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director from Crimea who was convicted of terrorism for allegedly helping burn the doors of a local pro-Russian political party’s offices after Russia annexed the peninsula in early 2014. It is also a means of exposing the twisted logic (or lack thereof) that the Russian legal system rests on. “Either the system carries everything to its logical conclusion, or it hides behind its mask,” he told the court that day.

“You still insist that the FSB is a criminal organisation,” the judge asked him as the proceedings began.

“Yes, a terrorist organisation. It changed its name, but it has always been one,” Pavlensky answered. “I demand that you requalify my case as terrorism, you remember.”

“I remember,” said the judge. “Stand up.”

“I will not.”

“State your name.”

“I will not,” Pavlensky said with a smile. “You already know.”

3 Readers' comments

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rus_programmer - June 16th 2016

>>a crazy idiot No, I don't think. How another mediocrity can earn, if they does not want to work? This is usual way to provide a comfortable life in the West. I wonder, the creativity Tolokonnikova someone interested? This artist would be able to earn at least a pack of cigarettes, if he would set fire of the CIA door? And here, he has a such long article. Of course, after his release, some human rights organization will take him under the wing.

rus_programmer - June 16th 2016

>>just a crazy idiot No, I don't think. How another mediocrity can earn, if they does not want to work? This is usual way to provide a comfortable life in the West. I wonder, the creativity Tolokonnikova someone interested? This artist would be able to earn at least a pack of cigarettes, if he would set fire of the CIA door? And here, he has a such long article. Of course, after his release, some human rights organization will take him under the wing.

1234ytq3rgqerbh - June 16th 2016

The artist ? A fighter with a brutal authoritarian regime? No, I think he's just a crazy idiot that should be kept in isolation from society.